Through Gritted Teeth #2: Arjen Robben

by Ethan Dean-Richards

I’m a half-hearted fan of West Bromwich Albion: a half-hearted football fan, in fact. Synthetic club rivalries don’t wake me up from my apathy and my contempt for all players is shared out more or less equally. Roman Abramovich’s takeover of Chelsea managed to make me care though: one billionaire artificially stimulating a club’s success made football seem arbitrary and insignificant, and that pissed me off. From there, Chelsea have always been the enemy for me. Two men have proved exceptions to that rule, but I’ll only be talking about one of them here because the other is Jose Mourinho and that’s all been said (by Paul Hayward, largely).

Arjen Robben spent three seasons at Chelsea, winning two league titles, an FA Cup and two league cups, but his time with them will be put down as a bit of a letdown. Injuries stepped in too often for him to be considered a crucial element of any of Chelsea’s successes and a falling out with Mourinho saw him leave before he’d really had time to show what he could do. Arjen Robben, then, has to be the player I’ve admired most “through gritted teeth” (I’ve gone and used the title, in the piece, like a pro).

Robben’s failings drew me to him more than any success could. Unfulfilled talent will always be something I’ll empathise with more than a perpetual winner and his maximised potential. Amongst a brutally efficient team, Robben was brilliantly unreliable, and ultimately a failure. With that, Robben was the closest player I could find to myself. I couldn’t help but take him on as a favourite.

His injuries, though, were a secondary consideration. His pace and directness made him stand out before anything else. Defenders backed off Robben: you can see from this goal against Newcastle that they were scared of him – properly scared of what he was capable of. I liked that: I loved that. Seeing how glimpses of immense raw talent could scare the middle-of-the-road plodders gave me a cheap thrill.

He wasn’t like anything else Chelsea had in their squad at the time. He wasn’t a consistent performer; he was about pace, not power; sometimes there was an end product, sometimes there wasn’t. He was the enigma: was he a genius or actually a complete waste of time? You couldn’t tell what he was going to do next and I loved that.

Of course, people said that about Joe Cole, but I was always pretty sure he was just shit.

I liked Robben at Chelsea because he was everything that his team wasn’t: I liked him because he was weak. Numerous psychiatrists will most likely go on to describe this admiration as the displacement of an obsessive neurotic, but before it comes to that I’d like to express some regret at having tried to burn his house down.

I have also drawn a picture for Arjen, if he is out there.

Ethan Dean-Richards loves the world and everything in it, except you. He is also editor-in-chief of Surreal Football, has written for ESPN Soccernet and Gaffer’s Corner. He once interviewed Roy Hodgson. It went well. Follow him on Twitter @surrealfootball.

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